Children's Literature

24th February 1995 at 00:00
A Lane to the Land of the Dead By Ad le Geras Hamish Hamilton #163;9. 99 0 241 00214 1 Chills Run Down my Spine By Jackie Vivelo Dorling Kindersley #163;8.99 0 7513 7028 2

D J Enright wrote recently that our hunger to believe in things supernatural is matched only by the compulsion to disbelieve.

This odd paradox illuminating our need for supernatural stories, from Beowulf to Branagh's Frankenstein, underpins Geras's powerfully atmospheric anthology. It includes its fair share of generic repetitions: a Dracula mask transforms its schoolboy wearer; haunted buildings; magic candles; an evil cat; and the scary feel of railways. As one character remarks, "There's ghosts and ghosts, " including a wistful cavalier hoping for a celebratory tercentenary-and-a-half T-shirt.

If the intended readership is 10 plus, however, then the "plus" should be interpreted liberally. Most of the collection is more than a revisit to the established conventions of the genre: the expected becomes the unexpected. Eyes and smells, for example, (cliche material) have a deadly appeal through their jolting description. There is also some measured play with structure and other narrative techniques.

Geras pursues our fears at points of crisis without false sentiment. Some recur: love, cruelty, rejection, the pain of separation, among them. The supernatural and the natural meet, as in the distressing "Miranda's Child", to stir our starkest emotions. "Whispers from the Hotel California", centred on disturbing images from the song, carries unnerving reverberations from They Shoot Horses, Don't They?

The title story reminds us of death's surprising certainty, not unlike "The Pardoner's Tale". "The Centre", based on the malignant claustrophobia of a shopping centrein which children go missing, has a shivery relevance for obvious tragic reasons. What can't be explained away is often explored,and the layers of menace demand re-readings: a crack in the tea cup opens "a lane to the land of the dead".

Chills Run Down My Spine, also aimed at readers in the 10 plus range, contains eight absorbing stories. Each meets its own ambitions: more limited in scope than those of Geras, but still versatile and engaging. Most of the narratives involve human ghosts, visible only to the main characters, but there is still room for a benevolent genie and the statutory abandoned house.

It is unlikely that young readers will be troubled by questions of plausibility, for Vivelo writes with an undramatic elegance that is deceptively beguiling. She never labours what is preferably inferred. There are many hypnotic moments, not least where animals are involved. A boy's proximity to death from the fangs of wild dogs ("Nick of Time"), or the perplexing presence of a panther ("The Creature in the Doorway") are spellbinding in different styles. Children will love to quiver over many of the unexpected endings, for example "Cradle Song", but like all fairy tales the prevailing morality is reassuring.

Occasionally, however, comes a nudge that the supernatural might just provide a grisly path to self-knowledge. "Haunted houses can send chills down your spine, but there's nothing - in life or after - half as cold as hate." A final commendation goes to the pencil drawings of Jennifer Eachus,which distinctly enhance the text.

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